Albert Camus and the Universal Quality of Human Dignity

“For Camus, true nobility lies in lucid acceptance of the world, its beauties and its limits, its joys and its demands, its inhabitants and our common lot.” — Robert Zaretsky, A Life Worth Living

What accounts for the abiding appeal of Albert Camus? It’s a question with more than one answer. As a starting point, there’s his gift for vivid storytelling. If not for The Stranger and The Plague, two powerful and engrossing novels that pulse with insight into the human condition, Camus may have been consigned to obscurity, just one more mid-century French intellectual who didn’t achieve the heights of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. But he did pen those classics, and they form the foundation of his legacy.

In part, they endure because, as with the rest of his oeuvre, Camus plumbed the questions, anxieties, and fears that have occupied humanity for ages: Where are we to find meaning in a world that shuns our inquests? Why so much evil? And what is the proper response to this state of affairs? The answers that Camus furnished, anchored in a call for universal human dignity but shaded by doubts and provisional claims, remain as compelling as his interrogation of those daunting unknowns. They betoken a man of not just penetrating intellect and moral clarity, but also one of modesty and decency.

This is the admiring portrait of Camus that emerges from two recent books by Professor Robert Zaretsky: 2010’s Albert Camus: Elements of a Life, now out in paperback, and the newly released A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning. Both texts offer concise, eloquent, and learned treatments of the life and work of the French-Algerian moralist. In particular, Zaretsky links the two, demonstrating how Camus’s heroic engagement with the world gave shape to his novels, essays, and plays. He also sheds light on Camus’s immense debt to intellectual titans of the past, ranging from the ancient Greeks to St. Augustine to Montaigne. In both books, Zaretsky convincingly makes the case that, along with his written corpus, Camus’s “embrace of his era’s responsibilities” — whether as a young journalist exposing colonial injustices, a leading member of the French Resistance, or a lonely voicer for moderation during the Algerian War — should still speak to us today.

Though neither book is a formal biography, Elements of a Life comes closest. It’s organized chronologically around four significant periods of Camus’s life. There’s the mid-to-late ‘30s, which encompasses Camus’s early endeavors in the theater, his brief flirtation with the Communist party and, most important, his first investigative reports from Kabylia, an impoverished region of Algeria. Zaretsky posits that “Camus (became) Camus during these journalistic affairs.” He continues: “They honed not just his language but also his appreciation for the vast gap between French ideals and imperial rule in Algeria.”

Subsequently, the book enters more familiar territory, moving briskly from Camus’s time as editor of Combat, the newspaper of the Resistance, to his very toxic falling-out with Jean-Paul Sartre to his deafening silence over the Algerian question in 1956 and beyond. These are the trials which give flesh and blood to the dashing Camus we know today, pictured with his hair slicked back, coat collar partially upturned, and a cigarette dangling from his lips. As others have noted, he resembled Humphrey Bogart, and his death (well before his time and in a car crash) evokes James Dean. But the iconography and romance would only amount to shallow ornamentation without a life thoroughly and attentively lived.

A Life Worth Living, the longer of the two tracts, functions more as an intellectual biography. It expounds on the five ideas – absurdity, silence, measure, fidelity, and revolt – that, according to Zaretsky, gave purpose to Camus’s life. Indeed, taken together, they form the essence of Camus’s philosophy (if that’s the right word): Absurdity marks the human condition. When we beseech the universe for ultimate meaning, the inevitable response is silence. But we must not succumb to nihilism. Instead, when we revolt (as we should), we must act with measure and fidelity, denying the enticement of essentially divinized abstractions like History, Progress, and the General Will in favor of universal solidarity. Our common lot should bind us together.

Zaretsky traces the genesis and development of these tenets through Camus’s works, including lesser-known entries like “The Silent Men” (a short story) and The Just Assassins (a play), while also detailing the historical context, the intellectual framework, and various critiques. It’s stimulating to follow the author as he links the absurd to Camus’s woeful childhood and the Book of Job, or silence to Camus’s mother and Nietzsche.

To be sure, there are drawbacks to this structure: there’s only a vague sense of sequential narrative; some segments are repetitious, even to the point of sentences being lifted from one chapter to another; and the sections on measure and fidelity bleed together. Moreover, The Fall, Camus’s most peculiar work of fiction, is barely granted a line of description, much less explication (Elements of a Life ignores it, as well). But, in the end, the overall breadth and quality of Zaretsky’s analysis still recommends A Life Worth Living.

Is there value in reading the two books in tandem? Certainly, both for the ways that they intersect and fill in corresponding gaps. While Zaretsky’s explicit aim with A Life Worth Living was to expand on the themes of Elements of a Life, there’s much to be said for the areas of overlap, which double as points of emphasis. Some of these, like Camus’s advocacy for reform in Kabylia or his withdrawal from the Algerian War discourse, are signature moments in the writer’s life. Others entail smaller details that contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Camus.

Though he devotes only several pages to the subject, Zaretsky finds space in both texts for considering the fascinating, albeit speculative, connection between The Plague and the Protestant French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon which, in 1942, harbored several thousand Jews from the murderous designs of Vichy France. At the time, Camus lived in the nearby town of Le Panelier and was taking up the notion of collective, rather than individual, resistance to the absurd.

Elsewhere, Zaretsky recounts both of the very public and very bitter intellectual sparring matches that pitted Camus against a fellow French thinker. Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre’s dispute regarding violence, Soviet communism, and “the reign of history” — which was ignited by The Rebel, Camus’s extended philosophical essay from 1951 — has always received the preponderance of attention. But well before that Camus heatedly clashed with writer Francois Mauriac over national reconciliation in liberated France. Strangely, it was Camus who backed the calls for swift retribution against high-level Nazi collaborators, reversing his long-time opposition to capital punishment. He later changed course and conceded that Mauriac had been right. From then on, his stance was firm: “We must never kill a human being on behalf of an abstract principle.”

Where Zaretsky augments the scope of his inquiry most from book one to two is in his exploration of the roots of Camus’ worldview. The ancient Greeks loom especially large here. Zaretsky writes, “Whether in the case of a war-torn Algeria or a meaning-shorn cosmos, Camus turns to the Greeks as guides to lead him from his perplexity.” One of these guides was Sisyphus, whose name and story Camus borrowed for his 1942 essay on the absurd. Of the mythic king of Corinth, who was sentenced to eternal failure in his task of rolling a large boulder to the top of a hill, Camus observed, “His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.” But absurdity only serves as a diagnosis of our condition.

It was Prometheus (though not only him) who taught Camus about the necessity of rebellion and, later, the tragedy of two “equally compelling claims” at war with one another. From Homer, Camus seized on Odysseus’s rejection of immortality – that is, his “embrace of measure, choosing a life tethered to our world” – as an essential course to follow. Then beyond the realm of myth, there was the influence of Thucydides. Camus modeled The Plague after this ancient historian’s account of an epidemic that devastated Athens early in the Peloponnesian War. The parallels span plot points, narrative techniques, and a shared philosophy of language and writing.

Yet, for as much as the Greeks shaped Camus’s moral imagination, someone else occupied the center of his writings: Catherine Sintes, Camus’s illiterate, mostly mute mother. She was “the sun, or perhaps the dark matter, toward which everything else (was) pulled” – “indispensable” but also an “enigma”. Along with the brutal poverty he faced growing up in Algiers, the silence of Camus’s mother defined his childhood. As such, it’s profoundly sad to read his recollections of that time period. They reveal a bewildered young boy who, despite the circumstances, never bore resentment toward his mother. Instead, he just desperately wanted to love and be loved by her.

In The First Man, Camus’s posthumous autobiographical novel, he wrote, “He feels sorry for his mother; is this the same thing as loving her? She has never hugged or kissed him, for she wouldn’t know how. He stands a long time watching her. Feeling separate from her, he becomes conscious of her suffering.” It was a separation that Camus would never be able to overcome. He was a writer, and his mother couldn’t read. He viewed dialogue as integral to human flourishing, and his mother spoke only sparingly. In the end, his life’s work couldn’t be anything but a mystery to her. As his moving dedication in The Last Man stated, “To you who will never be able to read this book.”

On one level, the importance of these biographical specifics lies in their humanizing effect. We recently passed the centennial of Camus’s birth, and it’s dispiriting to reflect on the popular misconceptions that persist about him. Too much of the world only regards Camus as a flat stereotype: the bleak, unfeeling, suicide-obsessed existentialist. Basically, The Stranger made flesh. They don’t know enough about the Camus who pined for the love of his mother. Or the Camus who experienced the natural world in terms spiritual and rapturous. Or the Camus who “insisted on the universal quality of human dignity, all the while holding on to the particularity of individual human beings.” Camus contained multitudes and, in both of these books, Zaretsky returns to this truth again and again.

This is why Camus remains relevant today. Though cut short while in full bloom, his far-ranging encounter with the world yielded questions and answers, principles and uncertainties that still hum with urgency. Studying his public life and his written body of work forces us to gaze into “the mirror of (our) own moral discomfort” and confront the realities of the human condition. Beset by life and its tragic complexities, we can always look to Camus as a guide and ally.